Literature, with the naughty bits

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Redemption in Prose

I'm not even done with this book yet and already it feels vitally important, exactly what I needed to be reading at exactly this moment in my life. (As if to prove that, at my audition last night one of the other actors was wearing a homemade David Foster Wallace T-shirt: across the chest was DFW, then a superscripted 1; across the bottom of the shirt was the footnote David Foster Wallace.) I can tell I will soon be collaring my friends and thrusting the book at their chests with evangelical fervor. Guys: You have to read this. It is so good.

The opening pages, in reintroducing me to this literary personality I adore, made me cry. They also help me understand his 2008 suicide somewhat--that it was the end of a long and deeply sad battle, that it disappointed him too.

I am--maybe--beginning to understand why I love his writing so much. (As with any writer, the understanding is a lifelong process.) It's not just that he's brilliant, or that he's the most accessible genius you've ever encountered. It's the expansive sense of forgiveness that pervades his work: forgiveness of himself for being what he was, forgiveness of humans for being what we are, forgiveness of the language for being what it is--this last taking him past all the elementary-school dogma about Garbage Words and all the grad school dogma about literary prose and letting him just use the words he needs to use. If the words were sometimes inelegant, sometimes academic, sometimes earthy, sometimes distracted, sometimes obscene, then far from being less artistic, they did a better job of capturing how it feels to be the mess of contradictions that is a human.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Missed Opportunities of Avalon

The Very Bad Book is done; it had some redeeming qualities, but not enough to make me forgive it for being 900 bloody pages long. I'm drafting a longer post about it, and I suppose for equipoise I'll write one about The Once and Future King as well.

But first, to cleanse my palate with Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I've been looking forward to more than any other book this year.

Friday, July 16, 2010

I Write Like E. A. Bagby, Thank You Very Much

By now, literary folks with time to kill have probably discovered I Write Like, the website that tells you--based on an automated analysis few cut-and-pasted paragraphs--which famous writer's work your words most resemble. I tried it a couple of times, once with the opening scene of my Victorian YA mystery, once with the last post of this blog. Evidently, the mystery resembles Dickens (hooray! exactly what it needs to do!), and the blog resembles Dan Brown. That last assessment was--well, nauseating.

I feel better after reading this post at the NY Times, in which the tool identifies the opening from Moby-Dick as resembling Stephen King. (Well, both writers are New Englanders.) Equally intriguing are the comments on the post, in which it emerges that the tool's database contains a scant 40 writers, of whom only three are female and none are minorities. No Toni Morrison, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright, no Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, no Jorge Luis Borges, no Virginia Woolf, no Carlos Fuentes, no Haruki this is really not much of a canon, then. It's a shame: the tool offers yet another instance of a celebrity-dependent culture wasting an opportunity to turn a bunch of readers on to some brilliant writers they might not have heard of.

But, in a more positive development, yesterday a friend who'd never read any David Foster Wallace was told her writing resembled his. That led to a spirited online discussion of his work--he's one of my favorites, and his 2008 suicide robbed literature of a brilliant mind. The conversation reminded me of what it's like when a writer permanently changes your way of seeing the world. DFW is one of the writers I find most inspiring; his work impels me to write and write and write, until you have to pry the pen from my cold, dead hands. Anything that reminds me of that isn't all bad.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A book to throw across the room

When I read something bad, I feel compelled to write about it. Partly, I suppose, to ensure that my reaction is legitimate, not just some awful moment of bitter-author jealousy; also partly to justify the time I've put into reading.

So, a confession: I've been reading The Mists of Avalon and actually hoping to discover that it has been censored somewhere, so I can write about it here. Because it is so very, very bad. More than once the writing has made me laugh out loud--and not because the author meant it to be funny. There isn't an ounce of deliberate humor here, as the characters all know they're in an epic tragedy and therefore speak exclusively in a language of ponderous platitudes and dramatic assertions (in which exclamation points serve as a handy substitute for emotion).

Anyway, the book hasn't been on the ALA's list of the hundred most challenged books for either the nineties or the aughts, and the ALA website doesn't have earlier lists than that. It must have raised some hackles in the eighties, though, right? I mean, there's sex--ponderous, epic, tragic sex, even if it is mostly written in soft focus--and there are blatant challenges to Christianity. Plus, feminism, and magic, and witchcraft. It cannot have escaped the Reagan years unscathed.

Maybe I'll just write about it anyway.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Pig tallow candles and the contract with the reader

Here's a nice interview with David Mitchell (whose Black Swan Green was one of my favorite reads last year). I love his discussion of the necessity of humor in literature ("it would be like bread that didn't contain water"), as well as the writer's contract with the reader and how "perhaps the contract defines the book." And this, from the discussion of historical fiction:
To get it right, you need to research and research and research. And then you need to hide all your research, otherwise something else happens. You get sentences like, "Milord, would you like me to light the sperm whale oil lantern or would you prefer the cheaper but smokier pig tallow candle?"
Heh heh. I've totally read books like that.

Mitchell suggests more than once that when the reader feels the contract has been broken, the appropriate response is to hurl the book across the room. John Gardner says the same thing in The Art of Fiction. Now I'm trying to recall if any book has ever been so bad that I have actually done this. The only one that comes to mind is Angels and Demons. But that's hardly the only bad book I've read. Maybe I need to work on my arm.

Brave New World

First Published: 1932

Along with George Orwell's 1984, Brave New World is one of the classic, indispensable future-dystopia novels of the early 20th century. In essence, the two books posit opposite outcomes of the Cold War. Orwell's dystopia is a triumph of Soviet-style oppression; Huxley's is a triumph of American corporate power. In the past couple of decades, Huxley's book has gotten a good bit scarier.

What Happens: In Huxley's world--several centuries ahead of ours--the pressures of population and industrial production have led to the creation of a global caste system, carefully controlled by genetic engineering and behavioral conditioning. Human life has become pleasant and shallow; one is programmed to enjoy one's work, and nonworking hours are spent in ceaseless sensory distractions--most notably, under the influence of the wonder-drug called soma.

Bernard Marx is an Alpha, at the top of the caste system, but this privileged life is not enough. He feels keenly alone, and he cannot stop questioning the world. He is restless and malcontent, increasingly impatient with the ostensible pleasures that interrupt his contemplation. There is "no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think."

Bernard takes a vacation to a relic of past times--a "Savage Reservation" in New Mexico, where Native Americans carry on with their traditional ways. Here he encounters Linda, an exile from the caste society who pines to return. He brings her and her son John back to London. Bernard becomes a celebrity, rising so quickly that he must inevitably be taken down.

John--quickly dubbed John Savage--is in hell. His upbringing has relied on books, spirituality, and friendship; he lacks the conditioning that would reconcile him to contemporary life. Worse still, he falls for a woman who is not programmed to recognize monogamy or love as desirable. The individual clashes with the society, and tragedy results.

Censorship History: As Huxley later wrote, "The subject of freedom and its enemies is enormous." Brave New World remains one of the most challenged works in the United States, ranking at #36 on the ALA's Banned Books List for the most recent decade.

Georgia and Missouri schools have removed Brave New World from their classrooms, and the Council for the Literature of the Fantastic claims that a Philadelphia teacher lost a grant because he taught the book. Some Texas parents, calling it "pornographic literature," attempted to remove it from schools during 2003's Banned Book Week. (Whatever will they do for Irony Week?)

Why It's Censored: To keep its citizens content in their overstructured lives, Huxley's government sponsors regular orgies and promotes recreational drug consumption. These scenes are clearly not meant to titillate; Bernard responds with weary disgust. And, compared with the sex scenes you can find in other books, they're tame. (I first read this in my late teens and had forgotten about the orgy scene by the time I revisited the book as an adult. If you can forget about sex scenes you first read as a teenager, the scenes are mild indeed.)

Huxley's world is also atheistic; all the crosses have been lopped off into capital Ts. Does this make the book anti-Christian? Hardly--you can't read ten pages without knowing that Huxley is not describing a world he wants.

As in most of today's totalitarian regimes, the power of Huxley's government rests on strict order, including censorship; most pre-industrial writing has been destroyed, and Shakespeare is unknown. Perhaps what really chafes the would-be censors of this book is the way both Bernard and John burn to escape the rigorous organization of this world--the unignorable implication that questioning rules is natural and desirable, or that some discontent can't be entertained away, or that some readers might want what a character disparages as "Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole."

Eerily Prescient Bits: By now, the comparison of Prozac to soma is old hat. Are they truly identical? Not really; soma doesn't have side effects. But Huxley is accurate in his prediction that a society might prefer to medicate discontent rather than to address its underlying sources.

Huxley doesn't predict the Internet, but he's bang on--no pun intended--about the so-called mainstreaming of porn. (Could he have predicted the verbing of mainstream? Probably.) His society is awash in shallow physical pleasures, often at the expense of genuine emotional connection--it's not far from hookup culture, made official by government sanctions. ("You ought to be a little more promiscuous," says one female character, who proudly displays her contraceptives.)

Huxley isn't the only writer to address the stupefying effects of distraction. Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" suggests a much bleaker future created by similar techniques. What is fairly new, however, is scientific confirmation that constant distraction harms our cognitive abilities. (Are you listening, Blogger? Could you stop jumping back to the top of the post every time I insert a bit of code?)

Contemporary female readers--that is, those of us who are leaving our youth during the era of Botox--will probably find it especially poignant that in Huxley's future, no one ages naturally. Various drugs and supplements keep them pert and firm until about the age of 60, when they typically just collapse and die, quickly and discreetly. The city dwellers react with horror to the sight of "primitive" Linda, wrinkled and sagging.

Those who are frightened by the growing power of corporations are not likely to find this a reassuring read. The leaders of the Industrial and Communist Revolutions are treated as near-deities, the namesakes of many of the characters (Benito, Lenina, Henry). Huxley's characters use the name "Ford" the same way we'd use the G in "OMG" and the C in "B.C."

Through the ceaseless, subliminal repetition of slogans ("Ending is better than mending"), Huxley's characters are conditioned from infancy to participate in a global economy of instant gratification, consumption, and disposability. Remember that scene in Supersize Me when everyone can sing the Big Mac jingle, but no one remembers the national anthem? Yeah.

And where do all those consumable goods come from? The comfort of Huxley's privileged classes rests on the shoulders of a much larger worker class, the Gammas and the Epsilons, specially bred to be dimwitted and unambitious, kept content in their drudgery with steady doses of drugs. Now, the drug- and alcohol-induced twilight of the Brave New workers is less prescient than historical. Alcohol has long been recognized as a near necessity for peasant and slave classes, with those in power attempting to strike a judicious balance between the workers' emotional stability and their ability to work. Roman slaveholders allowed for festival days; many American slaveholders permitted alcohol, but were all too willing to consider drunkenness evidence of Africans' innate inferiority. But the existence of the industrial slave class qualifies as prescient. As of 2010, there are over 12 million slaves worldwide, and millions more people work at desperately low wages. The proportion of privileged classes to impoverished workers is more or less what Huxley imagined; today, the bottom half of the world's population owns 1% of the world's wealth. (If you're reading this on a computer, it's a safe bet which half of the population you're in.)

Huxley wrote this long before the first test-tube baby (that, for the record, was Louise Joy Brown, born in 1978), but in his world, the test-tube process has entirely replaced viviparous reproduction. Children are "vatted," not born, and the concept of parenting is considered embarrassing and dirty. How close you think we've come to that probably depends on how your childhood shook out in its proportion of parental interaction to TV time.

Relationships with Other Works of Literature: The title, of course, comes from a line in The Tempest. John (the only really literate main character) quotes Shakespeare constantly. One of the most delicious allusions is the use of a Caliban line to describe the distractions of modern life--"Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about my ears." In its original context, that line describes the uncivilized island of Prospero's exile and the magical ways Prospero keeps Caliban enslaved. In Huxley's telling, it describes the experience of the "Savage" John within the hypercivilized caste society. The implications about what constitutes true slavery and true savagery are unmistakable. It's a brilliant little reference.

Julian Barnes's somewhat more optimistic Staring at the Sun posits a similar future for humans at the end of the 20th century, with "fundrugs" taking the place of soma. The population is ranked by letter grades.

In 1958, disheartened by overpopulation, totalitarianism, and the rise of nuclear weaponry, Huxley wrote a nonfiction follow-up, Brave New World Revisited. Among other things, he laments the speed with which the nightmarish shift from disorder to rigidity is coming to pass:
In 1931 systematic terrorism was not the obsessive contem­porary fact which it had become in 1948, and the fu­ture dictatorship of my imaginary world was a good deal less brutal than the future dictatorship so brilliantly portrayed by Orwell.
One can only imagine what he would write now.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Brief Moment of Necessary Housekeeping

FCC rules compel me to mention that The Field Guide to Forbidden Books is now part of the Amazon Associates program. I've always linked the books I mention to Amazon, but now if you click my link and buy the book I get a tiny amount of money.

This is not going to change the way I present my opinions of books, and it's certainly not going to change whether my reviews are positive are not. If you want to buy a book just to see how horrible it is, who am I to stop you? The whole point of this blog is that individual readers--not censors, not mail carriers, not editors, not hand-wringing PTAs, not the Texas school board--should be the ones who decide whether a given work is offensive.

Honestly, I have about three* readers, and I think most of them have already read most of the books I discuss, so I don't expect to make a dime from this. If by some chance my readership takes off, and if some of those new readers buy books because of my criticism,, I probably still won't even come close to earning fair pay for the writing time. But it's nice to dream.

*Margin of error: ±3.